Coders, CTOs and designers are talking shop this week in San Francisco. It's DeveloperWeek 2016, a tech event series with more than 60 week-long events including a hackathon, workshops, hiring mixer, receptions and the CTO World Congress.

The two-day CTO World Congress — marketed as "the definitive convergence of hundreds of CTOs and senior technology thought leaders within a single technology conference" — kicked off last night at Pier 27. Hundreds of attendees listened to speakers, who had 15 minutes to present their best practices and innovations, and hearelevator pitches from more than three dozen exhibitors, all intent on advancing the technology industry.

Exhibitors worked hard both individually and collectively to gain attention with an assortment of swag. And anyone who talked to all of the exhibitors could walk away with mementos ranging from mini drones and remote-control helicopters to more predictable shirts and Bluetooth speakers. 

DeveloperWeek runs through tomorrow.

Innovation was the underlying theme. And Natasha Mohanty, co-founder and VP of technology at FEM inc., a provider of video experiences for websites and apps, offered a four-step plan to drive transformative thinking in the workplace.

1. Provide Challenges

Mohanty defined innovation as taking business goals and converting them into challenges. People, especially engineers, love challenges and numbers, so Mohanty suggested, “Make sure you measure everything, and rinse and repeat."

FEM inc. works with media partners and publishers like Hearst and Univision. Last quarter, it invited its team to improve customer experience by reducing launch time. Since every media brand requires its own environment on FEM inc.’s staging server, this was challenging, she explained.

But one engineer found a way to build a Chrome extension that reduced testing time from weeks to minutes. That, along with other improvements and tweaks, reduced the company's time to launch by more than 50 percent.

2. Measure Your Staff

Mohanty was an engineer at Google before co-founding FEM inc, which now employs about 15 people.

By constantly tracking every KPI and the innovations that drive those KPIs, Mohanty said the firm has instilled constant innovation. Her advice: There are always someskeptics in a team or at a company, so start measuring innovation and outcomes across the board and get non-engineers involved.

“A downer can really take down a team,” Mohanty said. “We don’t actually say it affects performance reviews, but it’s something we track. The moment we said that it’s something we track, suddenly everyone was on board.”

Learning Opportunities

“Because it didn’t feel like, ‘This is not my day job. I have this job, and innovation takes up time.’ That process went a long way in bringing the stragglers on board.”

3. Set a Time

“The day-to-day grind really prevents you from thinking outside the box,” Mohanty said. By virtually making it mandatory for staff to participate in brainstorming, FEM inc. was able to change how it thinks about competitors.

They posed a user question once a week for an hour, one of which was how people find the best recommendations — new articles, videos and what to check out. So the team came up with obvious video competitors, like YouTube and Netflix.

But some also answered Amazon and Modcloth, which helped the group to understand products outside their space. “In my opinion, it helped us think creatively to get ahead of the competition,” Mohanty said.

“Study your competition all you want, but it’s really important to step back and do a take on the problem from a totally different angle, preferably based on feedback you get from your team.”

4. Buy White Boards

Sometimes innovation is about having the tools to illustrate the process. Mohanty says by tripling the amount of white boards in their office and setting out more sticky notes increased ideation at the company.

“Quite literally bumping [into tools] forced people to use them,” Mohanty said. “Just that act led to more innovation, faster innovation and more concrete innovative ideas versus what you can get from just talking about something.”

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